Diving Into Another Bell

So the story of the Butterfly and the Diving Bell might have given my brain the kick it needed to get going on the novel (see last post), but it was another Bell that got me going in the right direction. That would be James Scott Bell, who apparently writes suspense novels but whom I know as the talented author of Plot & Structure: Techniques and exercises for crafting a plot that grips readers from start to finish.

A few weeks back I was trolling Amazon and Alibris for books on the craft of writing and came across glowing reviews for this title. I am very happy I put it in my shopping cart because it has really helped to guide the plotting of this book, which, it turns out, was simmering on the backburner of my mind the past few months. Apparently while I was busy doing other things, characters and plot lines were coming together somewhere in my grey matter, crystallizing around my casual research. And here I thought I was just working on other projects and – let’s be honest – procrastinating!

Now I have a deck of index cards with scenes, characters, and questions to follow up on. I have websites and books flagged for research, know what kind of bush plane my heroine flies, and how one of the characters die. Today I get to start figuring out what her dad’s backstory is and learn more about the first setting of the book.

I’m not sure where all this will take me, but I at least I’m moving forward. And if I get stalled again, at least I can tell myself I’m not really procrastinating – I’m just letting my sub-conscious steer the car for awhile…

No More Blinkin’ Excuses

Last week while talking to some friends of mine at the Book and Bean, I busted through a creative wall.

Since completing For the Love of Flying back in the spring I’ve felt the full range of emotion you’d expect with completing a book: euphoria, exhaustion, satisfaction, anxiety… but mostly, I’ve felt a bittersweet sense of loss.
I find there is nothing better than being in the midst of a major project. I love that sense of purpose and the feeling that you’re moving toward something. Momentum is a magical thing.
Inertia, on the other hand, is hard to overcome. I hate starting new projects. Despite the excitement at limitless possibilities, I actually prefer limits – one storyline, one set of characters, one raison d’etre. And then there are all the reasons not to begin a project that all boil down to one thing: fear of failure. That editor or reader sitting in your skull telling you that the project – in this case a novel – will be a lot of work with no guarantee of success.
So for the past few months I’ve been haphazardly doing research, exploring characters and plot lines, but haven’t committed to the novel entirely. Then my friends told me about The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a memoir (later made into a film) literally blinked out by Jean-Dominique Bauby to his nurse after he suffered a major stroke that caused locked-in syndrome.

I know I often take for granted my ability to communicate through speech and especially through words. Hearing about this man’s experience – which could happen to any of us – really got to me. What kind of a hell on earth would it be to be trapped in my own mind with only my eyes to transmit needs, wants, complex ideas? How tormented would I be if I couldn’t get these stories in my mind out onto the page to share with others?

The answer: plenty tormented. So just in case I ever suffer a brain-stem stroke (touch wood) I want to finish as many projects as possible while I still have the ability to manipulate a pen & paper, keyboard & mouse, and voice recorder. And then hopefully make a mint so that if I am ever “locked-in” I will have the funds to hire a patient nurse and will have a publisher willing to send someone to take dictation, one blink at a time.

Writing through it all

I really try to believe in the saying that the universe (or God, depending on your belief system) only gives you as many challenges as you can handle. In Christianity, the story of Job is often used to illustrate this point. I am not a religious person, but this story of God testing the faith of one of his most faithful still resonates.

On a daily basis I find my faith tested, be it my faith in myself or the rest of humanity; faith that life has meaning; or that the world we live in is essentially a decent place. Generally, though – like most people – I’m pretty optimistic, resilient, and do believe that life is not out to get me.

Over the past few years, however, a few events have really rocked this faith and it has taken a lot to get back to my centre. One was my grandmother’s death from an asbestos-caused lung cancer in 2003. She went from a feisty and perfectly healthy 80-year-old woman to a weak shell of her former self in a matter of weeks. Then there was my mother’s diagnosis of an aggressive form of breast cancer in 2006: not only was I scared that I might lose her, but I realized that this was now an ongoing part of my reality – when I turn 30 I need to start getting mammograms because my risk is substantially higher. Grad school rocked my faith in my own abilities as a writer, researcher, and thinker. Even this latest move to Wyoming has caused more than its fair share of instability and frustration.

It’s amazing how much tougher we are than we think, though. With time, and maybe a little therapy, most of us do return to our ‘normal’ selves. I certainly have not come away unscathed from my experiences, but I definitely feel more compassionate, wiser, and more grateful for the life that I have.

My therapy has been my writing. Mostly it happens in journals, letters, emails, and now on this blog. It has also happened in poems, stories, articles, and soon hopefully in books. I channelled my grandmother’s life and death into several pieces, including a children’s book. Some of my struggles with my mother’s illness have made their way into a novel I started in Vancouver and plan to return to soon. Even my non-fiction works are touched by these experiences. This current book on Laurentian Air Services is in many ways a tribute to my wonderful grandfather – a pilot – who passed away a few years ago.

The universe has sent another major challenge my way: my young, vibrant mother-in-law, Dawn, has just been diagnosed with bile duct cancer, something that usually affects men in their 70s. It just seems so unfair and so strange, and has been a terrible blow to Doug and I. In true universe fashion, the timing has also just been rotten. I am thousands of miles away in Wyoming and Doug is now in Scotland for training for three months. We were able to go back for a week-long visit to Ottawa for an early Christmas, because we likely won’t be back for December 25th.

It was one of those wonderful, bittersweet visits. I think we often take for granted the moments with our loved ones – we think they will be around forever and rush through things. I know I am particularly guilty of having wandering-mind syndrome, and am often already thinking about the next activity before the one at hand is done.

Last week I tried so hard to bring my attention back to the present: to feel every hug, to taste every bit of food, and to enjoy every moment. Now that I’m back in Wyoming, it’s hard for my mind not to wander to Ottawa or Scotland. But, with the realization that our days on this planet are numbered – and we don’t often know that number – I am going to try my very best to focus on the book. Not only is it important to me that I keep my promises to myself, my publisher, and all the people who have been involved in the project so far, but more than anything I get the chance to honour the lives of so many men and women in this book. We only truly die when we are forgotten.

© 2011 Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail. All Rights Reserved.